• Rising Ground

Recently I’ve been re-reading Philip Marsden’s masterly Rising Ground.  His ability to interweave stories from his walk east-west through Cornwall, the history and significance of topography (although he does not mention Thomas Bond) and his retrieval and renovation of a derelict house upriver from Fowey is brilliant.  I have learned so much from his example as I try to confront the challenges of writing about my French walk that I finished a year ago.  So on this balmy April day I went up into the wood, and to its oldest bench looking over to Sharp Tor, with my copy of Marsden’s book as companion.

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• For St Cecilia

Happy St Cecilia’s Day!  Who knows these lines?

In England too men marked Cecilia‘s grace,
Their looks turned listening to that faultless face.
Stand with us, Merbecke, and be Byrd close by;
Dowland and Purcell, lift the theme on high;
Handel is here, the friend and generous guest,
With morning airs for her, and choral zest.

Cecilia’s blessings if you recognise them as being by that rather neglected poet, Edmund Blunden (right), who wrote For St Cecilia in 1947, in conjunction with the composer Gerald Finzi (left), whose ‘ceremonial ode’ of the same title is also rather neglected. Their work was premiered 65 years ago today in the Royal Albert Hall, London.

I came across this wonderful piece when I was conductor of the Queen’s University Choir and Orchestra in Belfast and we performed it to a rapt audience.  It continues to puzzle me why it is not better known.  It’s not a difficult piece to perform, has all of Finzi’s lyrical gifts and unparalleled word-cadences, and it has an open-hearted, celebratory quality that I cannot resist.  It’s more than a match for the revered Purcell and Handel (Blunden omits Britten from the list, though the latter’s Hymn predates Finzi’s setting by five years).  Blunden’s poem is ingenious, conjuring up fresh images and references while still giving Finzi plenty of musical scope.  It’s a marvel in itself.

There have been only two commercial recordings as far as I’m aware.  I ‘grew up’ with the Decca recording of 1978, with Philip Langridge, the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Richard Hickox.  More recently (2008), Naxos released a recording with James Gilchrist, the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by David Hill.

The Naxos recording tries to be more faithful to Finzi’s extremes of tempo (his fast tempi are impossible to sustain), but ends up exaggerating the contrasts – the fast tempi are too brisk for their own good, while the slow tempi are often overdone.  I still prefer the Decca recording, despite Langridge sometimes seeming a little strained and despite its tendency to flatten out the tempo contrasts, even if this does result in a greater symphonic sweep.  An example of their differences lies in the treatment of the melody at ‘For all man’s martyrdom the crowning psalm’. In Hill’s hands, it’s rushed and goes for nothing, whereas Hickox gives it more than its due, but it still lifts the heart as only Finzi can.

I await an interpretation that positions itself somewhere between these two.  Happy St Cecilia’s Day!

Delightful goddess, in whose fashionings
And fables Truth still goes adorned; …

… Changed is the age; mysterious, man’s next star;
But Legend’s children share his calendar, …

… How came you, lady of fierce martyrdom,
How came you by your manifold skill? …

… How smilingly the saint among her friends
Sits, and with her fingers white and long …

… Wherefore we bid you to the full concent
Of St Cecilia‘s joyous argument, …

You can also find this recording on Spotify, but currently there’s no recording on YouTube.

• Five Trees Shaded in Grey

It may also be dim and dank, but there’s more sense, strength and atmosphere in this autumnal mist (six o’clock this evening) than in you-know-what.  And that’s not to mention EMI’s tawdry decision to release an oh-so-safe CD of the novels’ ‘sound track’.  Heaven help anyone whose appreciation of its music is now irreparably conditioned by the novels.  As I wrote to one friend, the CD will win an award at next year’s Classical Brits, mark my word.  Give me a dim and dank Cornish mist any day.  I’ll now go and join the harrumphing horses in the field beneath the trees.

• Do Historians Hate Music?

I’m a peaceable sort of chap, but occasionally my musical hackles are raised. Today, they’re up again, occasioned by the arrival in the post of Anne Applebaum’s just-published tome Iron Curtain. The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 (Allen Lane).  Anyone who knows me also knows that I’ve spent a good few years of my life exploring Polish music in this very period.  So for me to head straight for chapters such as ‘Homo sovieticus‘, ‘Socialist realism’, ‘Ideal cities’, ‘Reluctant collaborators’ and ‘Passive opponents’ is a totally predictable action, one undertaken I’m afraid more in hope than expectation.

The plain fact is that most historians seem not to like music.  Or, rather, they avoid writing about it if they possibly can.  Literature and the visual arts – fine, although even they are often poorly attached appendages.  Is it therefore a case of such historians believing that music has no place in social, political or cultural history?  Or is it that they have no analytical or descriptive vocabulary with which to discuss it?  There have been occasional exceptions that bridge this gaping hole, one of them being in the writings of Norman Davies.  Davies not only makes the effort but also understands cultural contexts and has the writing skills to convey the significance of music and the other arts to his readers.  Another exception is the historian Toby Thacker, whose Music after Hitler, 1945-1955 (Ashgate, 2007) is a searching enquiry that covers both East and West Germany.  (Applebaum does quote from a 2002 article by Thacker, but his book is not in her bibliography.)  There are also historians whose brief is cultural history, such as Frances Stonor Saunders and her perspective from outside the Soviet bloc in Who Paid the Piper?  The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (Granta, 1999).

I have been poring over Applebaum’s book this morning.  It’s a weighty volume, focusing on three countries: East Germany, Hungary and Poland.  In major respects, it promises to be a fascinating read, a work of breadth and synthesis which I hope will help me in placing Polish music of the post-war decade within a wider context.  In fact, Iron Curtain barely acknowledges that there was such a thing as music, let alone its crucial role in socialist-realist propaganda.  And propaganda, not least that involving music and the visual arts, was at the heart of the ‘crushing’ communist machine.

There is mention of the prohibition of jazz and dance music as part of early 50s rebellious youth culture in Poland; elsewhere there is a quotation of the text of an East German mass song.  As for the music intended to promote socialist realism through mass songs or cantatas – or the concert music of the period – there’s almost nothing, except an incomplete recollection of one incident from Andrzej Panufnik, which Applebaum misleadingly glosses. Chopin Year (1949) is discussed, but not the two Festivals of Polish Music (1951, 1955).  Władysław Szpilman gets a mention for his radio broadcasts at the start and end of World War II, but then casually to remark that he ‘continued to work for the radio until 1963’ totally ignores his principal role in writing mass songs – some of them extremely popular – in the 1950s.  Applebaum has a few easily-reached quotes from Panufnik’s autobiography Composing Myself (Methuen, 1987), but these hardly count as a measured response to the issue.  The gaps are yawning.

I have not yet read Iron Curtain through from start to finish, so it is possible that its focus does not require the sort of essential details whose omission is so glaring to me.  Its attention to literature and film, for example, is a little greater, but any book on the period that fails to engage with Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind (1953) – although it is in the bibliography – or a literary figure like Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński, who was forced into ‘internal exile’ in the early 1950s for not fitting in with Poland’s socialist-realist drive, cannot fail to raise serious questions.  The visual arts are as notable for their absence as is music (a couple of illustrations do not make up for the dearth of discussion of painting, sculpture and poster art).  The general level of interest is summed up by a sentence towards the end of the chapter on ‘Socialist realism’:

In due course, the most obviously Stalinist films became embarrassments to their directors, some of whom denounced or disavowed them after his death in 1953.  The crudest High Stalinist paintings, sculpture, poetry, fiction and architecture met the same fate.

Why is music excluded there?

Readers who are curious in any way about the role of music in history are normally compelled to look elsewhere for enlightenment, to the work of music historians.  There are several recent books, by dedicated writers on music, which engage meaningfully with the cultural, historical and political contexts of post-war Eastern Europe.  (None of these authors is referenced by Applebaum, and it looks as if no music historians were consulted.  I can’t tell if specialist historians in the other arts were consulted.)  But no-one can pretend that any of these music-oriented books reaches the ‘broad masses’ who might pick up history books like this one.  There is something deeply wrong about this state of affairs.  Why is there so little reciprocity on the part of historians?  Do they not recognise what they – and consequently the reader – are missing?

Don’t get me wrong: Applebaum’s book looks as if it will, in other respects, be an engaging read, not least for its interviews with ‘time witnesses’.  And I promise to read it for what it aims to be, despite my disappointment at the failure of yet another historian to incorporate musical and other cultural aspects closer to the centre of the argument.

• Silence is Relative

Listening to the adventurous and surprisingly fulfilling radio experience of tonight’s John Cage Prom, I’ve been reminding myself of my own encounters with him and his music.

Back in the 1970s, when I was teaching at Queen’s University, Belfast, I performed Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. This was a challenging proposition, not least interpreting his requirements for the preparation of the piano.  His list of inserted items was one of found objects, so I followed suit, using bolts, nuts, and other items that came closest to his own treasure hunt thirty years earlier.  Hence, as is clear from the photo above, plastic rawl plugs and the rubber feet of music stands, cut in half.  It was a memorable evening, at least for me, as the pitch relationship between keyboard and soundboard was contrary to custom and practice!

Later, in the early 1990s, when I was working at BBC Radio 3, I went to New York for the ‘Bang On A Can’ festival. Through my friends Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang, who founded the festival in 1987, I had an opportunity to meet Cage. His gentleness of spirit was legendary, and so it was on that occasion.  The only other composer who has come near to this, in my own experience, has been Jonathan Harvey.  Both have a profound spiritual and philosophical understanding that makes my interest in Zen Buddhism mere dabbling.

The encounter with Cage that made the most impact took place when I was much younger, when I was an undergraduate.  With my fellow student Jolyon Laycock, I made a trip down to London to spend an afternoon with John Cage and his longtime collaborator, the pianist David Tudor.  The venue was a large theatre, now the multi-screen Odeon Cinema, in Shaftesbury Avenue.  We sat in the Gods, looking down on Tudor operating ring-modulation equipment in the pit and a quasi drawing-room on stage.  There were two rows of small pictures, one above the other, in identically sized frames hanging across the stage and with an armchair in front.

On came Cage, book in hand.  Silence.  He sat down and began to read.  Within a minute, Tudor started to apply ring-modulation to Cage’s voice and soon the text became unintelligible.  We were participating in a happening with John Cage.  It felt as if we were in the vortex of contemporary music and culture.  I have no idea how long the event lasted – maybe two hours?  I remember the audience becoming increasingly agitated, shouting, whistling, throwing their programmes in the air.  It was mayhem, in which Cage and Tudor, cool as cucumbers, did what they set out to do.  Then, without warning, Cage got up and walked off.  The end.

Or so I thought.  We emerged onto Shaftesbury Avenue at rush hour.  But such had been the torrent of sound inside the theatre that I heard no traffic noise.  There was silence at that moment.  Although this impression was transient, its aesthetic significance was profound.  And I remain eternally grateful Cage for this simple gift of enlightenment.

• Acquainted with the Night

To mark the opening today of an exhibition of prints by Howard Hodgkin, here’s Robert Frost reading the sonnet whose title Hodgkin has borrowed for this show and which he gave to his first ever print.

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
O luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Howard Hodgkin: Acquainted with the Night is at the Alan Cristea Gallery, Cork St, London until 7 July 2012.

• On Experience

I’m back reading Montaigne (earlier posts: On Idleness and On Three Interactions), partly because he challenges me to think, partly because he was one of Lutosławski’s favourite authors.  I’ve just started reading ‘On Experience’, which fittingly was his last essai (Book III/13).  This morning, I was brought up sharp by these two neighbouring though characteristically tangential passages early in the essay:

Les hommes méconnaissent la maladie naturelle de leur esprit.  Il ne fait que fureter et quêter.  Et va sans cesse, tournoyant, bâtissant, et s’empêtrant en sa besogne : comme nos vers de soie : et s’y étouffe : Mus in pice.  Il pense remarquer de loin, je ne sais quelle apparence de clarté et vérité imaginaire : mais pendant qu’il court, tant de difficultés lui traversent la voie, d’empêchements et de nouvelles quêtes, qu’elles l’égarent e l’enivrent.

Men mistake the natural ailment of their mind.  All it does is ferret and quest.  It ceaselessly keeps whirling, constructing, and entangling itself in its task – like our silkworms – and there it suffocates itself: Mus in pice (‘A mouse in pitch’ [Erasmus, Adages, II/iii/68]).  It thinks it notices some sort of clarity and imaginary truth from afar. But while it runs on, so many difficulties cross its path, so many impediments and new quests, that they lead it astray and intoxicate it.


Ce n’est rien que faiblesse particulière qui nous fait contenter de ce que d’autres, ou que nous-mêmes avons trouvé en cette chasse de connaissance.  Un plus habile ne s’en contentera pas.  Il y a toujours place pour un suivant.  Oui et pour nous-mêmes, et route par ailleurs.  Il n’y a point de fin en nos inquisitions : Notre fin est en l’autre monde.  C’est signe de racourciment d’esprit quand il se contente : ou de lasseté.  Nul esprit généreux ne s’arrête en soi.  Il prétend toujours et va outre ses forces.  Il a des élans au-delà de ses effects.  S’il ne s’avance et ne presse et ne s’accule et ne se choque, il n’est vif qu’a demi.  Ses poursuites sont sans terme, et sans forme : Son aliment, c’est admiration, chasse, ambiguïté …

It is nothing but personal weakness that makes us content with what others or we ourselves have found in this hunt for knowledge.  An abler man will not be content with this.  There is always room for someone to follow on. Yes, even from us, and by another route.  There is no endpoint to our inquiries: our end is in the next world.  It is a sign of incapacity or exhaustion when the mind is content.  No generous spirit comes to a standstill within itself.  It always asserts and goes beyond its own strengths.  It leaps further than its capabilities.  If it does not advance, does not press on, does not stand and fight, it is only half alive.  Its pursuits are boundless, and formless.  Its sustenance is wonder, the chase, ambiguity …

I admire Montaigne’s ability to give free reign to his thoughts, even though he recognises the pitfalls of this approach. Without an enquiring mind we are nothing.  It’s the ‘journey’, to use that clichéd word of our own times, which is more important than a hard-and-fast conclusion.  I’m sure that Lutosławski understood such ideas.  In important ways he brought them to bear on his creative processes and in the early sections of many of his finished compositions.

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